By Thérèse Bo-Wenge (@iamtxe)
In the 1960’s, reporting racism was very different from today. A civil rights worker looking to create awareness in the US would use their telephone to dial a wide-area telephone service number. The call would be dispatched directly to the organization paying for the line where, on their end, a civil rights workers duty was to keep record of the news. They would mail it out to the media, justice departments, lawyers, allies and repeat this process for ALL urgent news.
With social media being born in the digital era, this communication tool has enabled us to “share content quickly, efficiently and in real time” to influence people from all across the globe. This is relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement as it facilitates social activism with its ability to convey messages efficiently and create awareness. However, as much as this tool has proven to be competent, it has its downfalls and can be considered as a double-edged sword.
With the trend of being viral on social media, it has become a habit to record events of injustice to share them on multiple social media platforms. Through the viral and unfortunate videos of victims like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the Black vulnerability depicted in them empowers the Black community, solely because viewers witness the ‘Black experience’ in an anti-Black society.
Creating awareness on social media involves educating users on this reoccurring issue. While there are many media platforms exploring the reality of a Black individual in society, many of the informative posts are empowering as they enable the Black community and allies to understand, challenge and transform institutions that governs us. It also supports the dissemination of resources that provide us with ways everyone can help to take action (i.e., links to petitions and donation funds).
Social media also creates unity within communities and generates a stronger support system. Likewise, Black owned businesses and brands have earned support and exposure. The hashtag #supportblackowenedbusinesses eased the search for such businesses through Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Supporting Black owned businesses “closes the racial wealth gap, promotes job creation, strengthens local economies, celebrates Black culture and serves the community while holding other companies accountable.”
Supporting Black businesses, a form of activism, leads to the exposure of larger companies who exploit and discriminate the community. As observed through the allegations made against companies and brands like Dollskill, Refinery29 and Aunt Jemima. It resulted in these known companies issuing public apologies, finally giving due credit and losing popularity.
As much as social media platforms enables the average user to actively learn more about creating a positive change for the movement and participate in tags like the #blackouttuesday, it is hard to measure the user’s intent. Quantity, as in the amount of people participating does not result in quality, the people who are actually devoted to change. Known as performative activism, users practice activism for social status and acceptance more willingly, than their commitment to the cause and feed into slacktivism. It can be argued that social media has made it more of a trend than a social movement.
Performative activism is also evident in well-known companies, brands and businesses through the insincere posts and apologies done on social media. With Netflix’s statement “to be silent is to be complicit”, it is clear that the BLM movement is not a political issue but a human rights issue. “Staying out” and “keeping calm” at a time like this would lead to a significant loss of clientele as consumers tend to stay loyal to brands when they believe they share the same values. Despite companies demonstrating leadership, we can question whether brands are devoted to change or are engaged in performative activism.
Another disadvantage would be the countered effect of Black vulnerability and racial trauma. Which is defined as the ongoing result of racism, racist bias and exposure to racial abuse in the media and this is especially seen in Black people. Viral post involving discrimination can trouble one’s mental health. A 2012 study reported that Black people experience exceeding rates of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are prone to depression, substance abuse, high blood pressure and in some cases, psychosis.
In the 60’s, it was the civil right movement and Martin Luther King that made a significant change in history concerning Black rights in society. Today, social media has exposed everyday concealed racism. It is evident that this tool for activism has made a positive change though, albeit the undeniable shortcomings. Will it be enough to mark the end of racism or will social activism adapt to the next generations technology?
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